Wednesday, May 11, 2005
Honestly, I am not a big MMORPG guy. Thank goodness, too, because it would have made me angry that I had paid by the month for access to a game that I already paid $50 dollars for and was more than likely inferior to Guild Wars. However, the lack of a monthly fee is the smallest part of Guild Wars. This game is huge and masterfully crafted in almost every conceivable way.
You start your enormous quest in the beautiful and scenic Ascalon City and can adventure through the surrounding areas. However, quickly enough the city and area are laid to waste by an invading group of baddies called the Charr. Now it is up to you and your posse of human- or computer-controlled friends to save Ascalon from complete destruction. This journey will take you far and wide and with a ridiculous number of side quests and missions to change up the pace a bit. In many games these extra quests just feel like filler, but not so in Guild Wars. Often they provide a sense of foundation for your character and definitely pay off in the experience points, items and skills earned. But the campaign is only one element of the whole game; the other is the player vs. player arena matches. There are some in the main story mode but there is also a player vs. player only section. The greatest aspect of this is that you create an entirely different character for Player vs Player that starts out completely leveled up, but the only way to get the great items for the character to use is to have earned them in the campaign. So, in essence, to get the most from the game experience you have to do both, but you aren't required to.
Again, there are the two main divisions of the game that require two different characters, but the developers kindly decided to let every CD-key register 4 characters for free. You are able to customize each character by choosing from six job classes (ranger, warrior, necromancer, monk, elementalist and mesmer), a second job class from one of those, clothing (once you get new armor), hair, face, and even the color of all your equipment by collecting and using dyes. But if you decide that you don't like the character you created then you can just trash it for another as easy as that. Not too bad a deal considering many of the competitors charge for each new character on top of the monthly fee.
Even with all the interesting visual aspects you can customize, most of the depth lies in the actual player stats. When you choose a job and a second profession you are locked into your decisions (thus the need to allow players to delete characters and experiment), but each job has more than 100 skills to acquire so you aren't going to be stuck with pointless crap that is definitely inferior. On top of that you can distribute different points to your attributes, which are determined by your jobs at any given time. So in essence you could have a really strong necromancer/warrior in one minute and then in the next have a magic-oriented character that is relatively fragile by just redistributing points. Now you won't be managing stats like in Diablo or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic to up your base health, energy, or strength because those are done automatically and all you have to focus on are the more specific details. This method removes the tedious checking and rechecking of stat point distribution to maximize those fields, and instead you are left with maxing your character's specific traits.
Now that you have your character, you are unleashed on the world of Tyria to do as you wish. And by "as you wish," that is exactly what I mean. You could decide to rush through the game and do only primary quests (the game doesn't end after these are all done so you don't really gain much by this method), you could take your time and do all the side quests, you could just explore every single inch of the map, you could start your own trade empire and make an enormous amount of money fast, or you could do nothing. The whole game experience is left up to the player. It is with this freedom that Guild Wars succeeds.
The game has an enormous map that would take a ridiculous number of hours to completely explore. At the writing of this review I had to ask for assistance to get to certain areas to best understand the game and its diverse world (much thanks goes out to Blue Dawg for helping me out). Needless to say this world has extremely different environments throughout. The environments range from wastelands to snowy mountains to lush jungles to fiery volcanoes and more. Every single environment is well detailed and massive almost to the point of overwhelming. It isn't overwhelming because of the fact that there are only certain paths you can take, which makes the game feel a little linear, but the paths wind all around and actually branch out to further areas. This aspect makes it feel like you are truly exploring the world. And to heighten the sense of emersion in the world are the vast draw distances. Pretty much everything you see is actually reachable. This makes it easy to just get lost in the world because of the desire to get to that next big hill and see what is on the other side. But if you do get lost then the developers provided a nice way to get back to town -- the map teleport. This allows you to warp to any discovered town with the click of two buttons. This is especially nice because it removes the need for back tracking, most of the time, and also provides for a fast escape from any battle that has turned sour. But when you come back all the enemies will respawn.
Now what would an RPG be without some enemies to fill in the world? Well, Guild Wars has enemies out the ears. In fact there are places where it feels like the enemies are more native to the environment than the vegetation because there are so many. But this is only a problem when you come ill-prepared to fight. In other words, always leave town with allies. In general the enemies are extremely well designed with gorgeous textures and character models that accentuate the fluid animations, but because there are so many they can become repetitive after a while. Thankfully most locations have many different types of enemies, or stronger versions of previous enemies. In classic Diablo style there are also mini-bosses spread throughout the world to provide some challenge while exploring.
With this many enemies the combat had to be fluid and intuitive while still engaging, and Guild Wars succeeds mostly. The combat is definitely fluid because with the click of two buttons you are able to switch between enemies and start attacking and with a single key stroke you can use any of the eight skills you decided to bring with you when you last left a town. It is this limitation on the skills you can bring that gives the combat enormous depth. When forming a party you will be much more successful if you decide who will bring what skills so that everyone is as complementary as possible. This communication will take you far in the game. Furthermore, Guild Wars allows any player to select an enemy and broadcast it to the rest of the team with a single extra keystroke. When they do this everyone is able to then target that enemy and focus all attention on it. With this same keystroke, holding control when clicking something, it will broadcast a message to the whole team about that object. You can broadcast health, experience, what spells you are using, and many other things. Overall it is a useful device, but in the heat of battle it can become annoying because it does post a message on the screen. The biggest draw back to the combat is that there are so many enemies that if you are exploring for an extended period of time the fighting can get old, especially if you aren't receiving experience points, which happens when you fight really weak enemies.
Guild Wars has one of the best user interfaces I have ever seen in a video game. It just seems to be exactly what I wanted and needed. It takes elements from Diablo and puts a new spin on them. All the sub windows (party, inventory, storage, skills, etc.) are semi-translucent so that you can still see the action going on and can interact with the environment while managing your character. This prevents the game from losing any screen space and just seems natural. Also you can resize most of the windows or hide them if you like. This allows you to make the interface as crowded or barren as you like. There is also an apparent limit on the number of messages that will appear in the lower left corner of the screen, which is a nice change from many games that will just pile on messages until kingdom come. But if you happen to miss something it does keep a history of all the messages received since you logged on. This is convenient when you are trying to trade with numerous people at one time because you can review what prices you agreed to. There are also two different maps that you can have on your screen at any one time: the compass map that shows the mission objectives and the world map that has a dotted line showing where you have traveled in the current area. I personally wish that there had been a way to combine them, but as they are it isn't a big problem.
It is especially easy to form a party because all you have to do is click on someone and then send a request that they can either accept or reject. This is important because almost the whole game relies on being in a party. The party provides much-needed support when you get suckered into a large battle. A nice element of the party is that everyone shares gold, experience points, and items (the game determines who can pick up a dropped item). The game was developed so that it creates a new instance of the game world for everyone, and the only place to see other people is in a city, unless you join a party. In that case then the people in that party get an instance of the world together. This makes the game more about each party and the journey together because you don't have to worry about high-level players roaming around looking for easy kills, or item thieves. It really makes the game more accessible and enjoyable as a whole. The biggest gripe I have with the party system is that there is no way to tell what quests everyone has in common so that you all can work together without just taking a survey and choosing the most commonly desired quest. But even with this small squabble you will quickly form parties, decide what to do, and probably find players that you enjoy playing with. This is where the handy friends list comes in. It is designed so that you have to type in the name of the player, which isn't so bad, but why they didn't employ another simple key-click combination to add friends is beyond me. But with a large enough friends list you will never be in want for people to fight along side.
The game definitely takes care of business on the visual and interactive side of things, but the audio doesn't shine as much. The voice acting is very well done, but there is barely any of it except for the in game cut scenes, which in and of themselves are a little weak, too. But the sounds you hear the most are the clashing of weapons and spells being cast, and frankly, they are boring. After about 2 hours you have heard the vast majority of the sound effects and from then on it is repetitive. The musical score is fairly nice but suffers from the same problem that many games suffer from -- it repeats and gets old eventually. I got to the point where I just put in a CD to listen to while playing instead of the game music.
Another less than stellar, but decent, area is the artificial intelligence. It is a mixed bag of mediocrity. The tank characters, warriors and the like, run to the front and engage in battle appropriately, and the elemental mages stay towards the back fairly well, but the healers are just horrible. They are poorly equipped to fight but they tend to move towards the front and attempt to duke it out just to be killed in about 10 seconds. This is a serious problem when that one character is all you have to heal your group and the only person who can revive dead people. If this happens it is usually better to just go back to town than try to huff it out without a healer. Though if you are close to a new area, denoted on the map by a portal, then you should just go there and everyone will be alive again but with a decent sized negative health and energy modifier. This problem is just a further reason to team up with human companions. But the enemy artificial intelligence seems to work fairly well in most cases. They tend to seek out the weakest character or gang up on the nearest depending on which would be more convenient. This makes some battles hard because they like to go after the healer first, which compounds the problem she already has. Rarely did I see a mistake on the part of enemies, but one time I was able to defeat an enemy without him even reacting as I pelted him with arrows from above. Again, these issues are rare.
Guild Wars also has wonderful net code. It constantly streams data to your computer to reduce load times, which should be less than 10 seconds on a cable connection after the first time entering a new area, and it allows any changes to be made without you having to expressly download a patch. In general it is smooth and no visible lag, but during the more peak hours of the day there will be some bizarre character warping and just dead stops in the action. The warping isn't too serious a problem because the computer is doing the aiming, but the stops can be disastrous because you aren't able to react to any attacks that may be happening. Also there is a slight lag between when you finish typing a message and when it appears on the screen, but this really doesn't affect anything.
Guild Wars is a must-have for any RPG fan that plays computer games. It has an enormous campaign that can easily span 100+ hours, a dedicated section that is only player versus player, a vibrant and engaging community right now, no monthly fees, and the promise of more content. So far the developers have essentially nailed everything that makes a role playing game great and any extra content will should only expand on this most solid of foundations (hopefully by raising the ridiculously low level cap of 20). This title is without a doubt, going to be hogging all my free time when I should be doing my own computer work. Thank you, ArenaNet and NCSoft, for giving us old-school RPG fans something to rave about.
Desktop P.C. - 3.2GHz Pentium 4 processor with Hyper Threading Technology
GeForce4 MX440 32Mb video card
512 Mb ram
cable internet connection
There were few frame rate hiccups or slow down with all but the fuzzy post-processing effect turned to maximum. I was able to play with the post-processing effect on a friend's machine and it is a truly beautiful effect.
Laptop: 1.6GHz Mobile Pentium 4 processor
ATI Mobility M6 8Mb video card
256 Mb ram
cable internet connection
This machine has a significantly lower frame rate (about 25 fps) and very low quality textures, but still the same great draw distance and barely any frame rate hiccups. This is impressive because the game states the minimum requirements include a 32Mb video card, and on top of that my video card isn't even supported anymore. This versatility will allow the game to garner a broader fan base.
First Play: A+
Last Play: A+
Overall: 94% A